Chatting with LaBan

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The Inquirer’s esteemed food critic Craig LaBan was en fuego in this week’s online chat! We always love to see how he’ll handle the innocent questions of the proletariat. Woe to the chatter who dares to ask him for a ‘special dinner recommendation’! We’ve highlighted the zingers after the jump.

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2 Bells To Cochon

Cochon Duck Breast
Craig LaBan reviews Cochon, the French bistro named for a pig on the border of Queen Village and Bella Vista in South Philadelphia.

Cochon’s best entree, though, may in fact have been the duck breast. Its skin was seared to a cracker-crisp edge around rosy moons of tender meat, which came fanned over mahogany gravy next to a ragout of white beans. Of course, those beans are larded with nubs of pork and bacon, which not only amped the flavor, but drove home a recurring theme: Even when the poultry plates fly high, pig rules the heart of dinner at Cochon.

Two Bells – Very Good

Cochon [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Cochon [Official Site]

Blue Pear Bistro

Blue Pear Bistro
A historic general store next to the Dilworthtown Inn is now the Blue Pear Bistro and is serving up casual comfort food updates from former Palette chef David Fogleman.

David Fogleman can still cook. And a few years of maturity have even allowed him to execute an affordable bistro menu (with virtually all items under $20) without sacrificing a commitment to diligent technique, quality ingredients, or the uncanny ability to create dishes that surprise.

Two Bells – Very Good

Blue Pear Bistro [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Blue Pear Bistro [Official Site]

The Year In Bells

Osteria
Craig LaBan looks back at the year in restaurants in Philadelphia bumping up the ratings for three restaurants, Rae to 3 bells and Brandywine Prime and L’Oca were both bumped up to 2 bells. Jose Garces was named chef of the year and Osteria got the nod for restaurant of the year.

The bells: One more time [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Shundeez Gets Two Bells

Craig LaBan visits Shundeez in Chestnut Hill for some affordable and tasty Persian food.

Kabobs are this menu’s best bets, which makes sense, considering it was named after a town in Iran renowned for its kabobs.

All are carefully cooked over a grill that avoids getting too hot, and come over a bed of fluffy basmati, topped with a stripe of saffron-tinged grains and melted butter.

But the secret to these meats, it seems, is in the onion juice, which provides milky zest to marinades without the onion’s pungent zap. It seems to amplify the saffron and otherwise simple seasonings in the moist chicken kabob. It also lends extra depth to a filet mignon that is flattened and grilled along the wide skewer (ours was a bit overcooked, but still tasty).

Two Bells – Very Good

Shundeez [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Shundeez Restaurant [Official Site]

City Grange

City Grange

Photo by Ryan Charles

Craig LaBan puts City Grange through the ringer and finds the restaurant at the Westin suffers from careless cooking and an overly ambitious menu writer.

That second visit, indeed, showed a genuine glimmer of what City Grange is hoping to become. The hard peach had been replaced by a hard pear (at least it was in season). And the kitchen served a handful of memorable dishes.

The macaroni and cheese was as good an update to the classic as I’ve had, tanged with good Pennsylvania Noble cheddar and snuggled beneath a deeply crunchy crumb crust. The trendy Angus burger sliders were borderline delicious, with good meat topped in three pleasantly distinct ways. The Alaskan salmon was moist, and basked in the gentle contrast of its earthy spice rub and a sweet peach chutney. The massive ribeye steak from Meyer Ranch in Montana was undercooked, but the spice-rubbed meat was profoundly tender and buttery.

One Bell – Hit Or Miss

City Grange [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Silk City

Silk City Diner

Photo by Ryan Charles

It’s been a case of revolving chefs at Silk City since it opened but hopefully there’s some stability now and the kitchen can start clicking on all cylinders.

So it was back to chicken wings-by-the-pound on Oct. 1 with a brand-new chef, Matt Ball, formerly of Deuce. He has largely taken his cues from Dunmire’s earlier menu – and those plump and crispy wings, glazed in a buttery hot sauce that tickles your nose with vinegary heat, are worth the encore. But Ball has also added his own nice twists.

His “ultimate BLT” is exactly the kind of comfort-food upgrade that Silk City needs – true in spirit to classic Americana, but amplified by a clever touch and better ingredients. From the boar bacon and rustic bread to the layer of fried green tomatoes with spicy sriracha mayonnaise, every element recalls the original but delivers a deeper, more savory resonance.

Silk City’s best dishes are the starters, like the quesadillas stuffed with tender pulled BBQ pork and crunchy pickles(!), empanadas stuffed with chipotle-braised chicken, heartily spiced chili, and excellent calamari and rock shrimp fried in a cornmeal crust. The Thai-styled baby back ribs were also great, slicked with a sweet chile sauce and peanuts.

Two Bells – Very Good

Silk City [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Silk City [MySpace]
Silk City Diner [Official Site]

Bluefin

Craig LaBan likes Bluefin in Plymouth Meeting even if he thinks it getting the same food rating as Morimoto is a bit insane.

It’s an obvious case of Zagat-flation, where a core of devoted zealots have gotten carried away with love for their local haunt. That’s not to say Bluefin isn’t a worthy neighborhood destination for sushi. This plain little room has plenty of virtues, including a good selection of high-quality fish for a fair price, a few notable signature rolls, and a lively young staff that is friendly and efficient.

But let’s put it in a fairer perspective. Bluefin is more solidly in the upper middle class of the local sushi scene than one of its elite destinations, such as Morimoto, Fuji or Sagami, whose rare ingredients or master craftsmanship set them apart.

Two Bells – Very Good

Bluefin [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Honey in Doylestown

Craig LaBan tastes Honey in Doylestown. Not surprisingly honey plays a major role in the dishes, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.

Whether McAtee scores or stumbles, he does it with exuberance. It’s a likable enthusiasm that infuses every aspect of Honey, including its friendly and generally well-prepared servers, who were charming even when they didn’t have all the answers about the small American wine list.

Two Bells – Very Good

Honey [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Honey [Official Site]

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